WRITERS OF THE BLACK CHICAGO RENAISSANCE
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Introduction Steven C. Tracy
Even the seasoned critic writing on the subject under consideration here can fall unconsciously and automatically into writing Harlem Renaissance rather than Chicago Renaissance. That is how prominent the Harlem movement still is in the minds of scholars of African American literature: it is mere second nature to write "Harlem" with "Renaissance." Not that the Harlem Renaissance is not supremely important. Some scholars believe—though fortunately not all of them—that not much of literary value was written by African Americans before the pivotal era that produced Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jessie Fauset, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Anne Spencer, and others. The literary, indeed cultural, outpouring of the Harlem Renaissance produced unprecedented publishing opportunities in journals like The Crisis, Opportunity, The Messenger, The Survey Graphic, The Nation, Garvey's Journal, Negro World, and many others, white- and black-run, as well as journals that had both white and black editors, as did Liberator when Mike Gold and Claude McKay were coeditors. Attention that had been experienced previously only by stray African American writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Frances E. W. Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Charles W. Chesnutt focused on a larger group of African American writers. And when the Harlem Renaissance ended, its destruction fueled by the stock market crash and, in some ways, by attraction to leftist political movements that actually predated the crash and provided positive impetus for a number of social, political, and literary issues in the lives of African Americans, it seemingly left a gulf not filled until the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. That gulf has been more in African American literary criticism than in actuality.
The late 1930s through the 1950s—roughly the time period of what Robert Bone first labeled the "Black Chicago Renaissance"—were not just years when isolated individuals like Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin or Gwendolyn Brooks wholly dominated the African American literary scene. But the center that could not hold in Harlem had moved to another prominent destination of the great Black migration—to Chicago. To many, the Chicago Renaissance seemed to be less consciously a "movement," with policies, activities, organs of publication, and purposes of its own. Actually, many critics have regretted the "Renaissance" label, for both Harlem and Chicago, because neither was an actual rebirth or resurgence that brought immediate, profound epochal changes. However, each represented avant-garde political, social, and artistic thinking that eventually produced a stage upon which African American writers could redefine their relationships to American society and the world; therefore, calling each a Renaissance is not really problematical in the sense of the term as a renewal of vigor, energy, or life produced by a newly minted but broad-ranging vision. Indeed, what we call movements are frequently somewhat loose aggregations of writers, few of whom fit all of the criteria later established by critics for the "group," that resist wholly satisfactory definitions. However, the Chicago Renaissance did have its influential major figures (Wright, Brooks), its major influences (Naturalism, Chicago School of Sociology, leftist politics), its clubs (John Reed Clubs, South Side Writers Project), and publishing organs, both black and white (The Anvil, The New Anvil, the New Challenge), and important newspapers like the Chicago Defender, the Chicago Bee, and the Chicago Whip. It also had manifestos such as Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing," written in New York and attempting to establish and delineate a sharp break from the Harlem Renaissance, though of course still sharing some values. And, like the Harlem Renaissance, it had an urban scene teeming with important musical and artistic activity, and recording and museum opportunities that were magnets for budding artists.
Perhaps what it lacked that the Harlem Renaissance had was the level of a sense of self-awareness as a group with particular aims and expectations from both within and without. Surely, Black Chicago Renaissance figures knew who they were, knew what cities and neighborhoods they were in, met with each other socially and professionally, and read each others' works. But the milieu of the Roaring Twenties, literary patronage and publisher interest, and postwar optimism and sense of purpose gave way to a movement in Chicago less optimistically galvanized into action. The Harlem Renaissance, after all, had failed to produce the high regard and social equality it was assumed the production of great literature would bring. A more jaded, bitter outlook replaced some of that optimism, and, though there were of course liaisons and associations between white and black artists in the Harlem Renaissance, such interracial liaisons based in leftist political associations were more common in Depression and post-Depression-era Chicago, where Jack Conroy's collaborations with Arna Bontemps and James T. Farrell's support for Richard Wright's works were notable but not uncommon liaisons.
Of course, all literary movements have their antecedents, figures, or even groups that act as precursors or models preparing the way for the new dispensation. Dunbar, Chesnutt, Ida B. Wells, Frances E. W. Harper, W. E. B. DuBois, and James Weldon Johnson, for example, anticipated some elements of the Harlem Renaissance, and in some cases lived to contribute to it. At times such movements, despite the most well-intentioned efforts of literary critics to package them neatly, refuse to hang together as we have seen them or would like to see them. Figures write beyond the "end" of the time frame established by scholars of literature, or challenge the proscriptions of class, race, or gender "boundaries" in ways that demand reconsideration and reappraisal. Such is the case for writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and the Black Chicago Renaissance as well. Still, movements need their definitions and parameters to be as concrete as possible, while recognizing that the natural growth of a grove or garden is to exfoliate or flower in untamed exuberance or under carefully restrained direction.
Unequivocally, Harlem Renaissance writers were important precursors for African American Chicago Renaissance writers in a variety of ways. Their focus on exploring the cultural past and reclaiming it for contemporary lives in a primarily urban setting; the use of blues, jazz, and spirituals by writers such as Hughes, Hurston, and Thurman in their literary creations; the exploration of leftist politics by authors such as DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, McKay, and Hughes; the insistence upon the centrality of African American experiences to any definition of the American character; and the forging of ties with influential white educators, patrons, and publishers—all these elements also figured prominently in the Chicago Renaissance.
In fact, for some writers and critics the term "Harlem Renaissance" was a technical misnomer, as Sterling Brown insisted. There were major outposts of writers associated with the Renaissance elsewhere, for example, in Washington, D.C., where the African American institutions Dunbar High School and Howard University were located, as well as in Virginia, Los Angeles, Boston ... and Chicago. One major writer, Claude McKay, was in Europe during most of what are described as the "peak" years of the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, in 1920 H. L. Mencken was proclaiming Chicago to be "the Literary Capitol on the U.S." in the London Nation, and while what he referred to encompassed primarily the white writers of the earlier Chicago Renaissance, the city clearly had bubbling activity in the black communities that would come to a boil in a few decades.
Because these activities were based in more locations than just Harlem, the term "New Negro Renaissance" more accurately described a movement that had one city as its symbolic spiritual base and hub of activity, just as Chicago functioned similarly in the Black Chicago Renaissance. For example, although Fenton Johnson is sometimes judged a relatively minor poet whose works anticipated Harlem Renaissance themes, his first book, published in 1913, was also a major precursor to the Chicago Renaissance of black writers in the 1930s, with which he later became personally involved as well. Marita Bonner, based in Washington, D.C., during the Harlem Renaissance years, contributed the important essays "On Being Young—A Woman—and Colored" and "The Young Blood Hungers," along with short fiction and drama, to the Harlem movement before moving to Chicago with her husband in 1930 and being present for the Black Chicago Renaissance later. Indeed, Chandler Owen, cofounder with A. Philip Randolph of the Socialist magazine Messenger in 1917, moved to Chicago in 1923 and became editor on the African American newspaper the Chicago Bee. Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, while rightly associated with the Harlem group, had important ties to the Chicago group as well, as residents, frequent visitors, and, in Hughes's case, as organizer of the Skyloft Players theater group and publisher of the important "Simple" sketches in the Chicago Defender beginning in February 1943. Hughes and Bontemps, in fact, lived through the three major African American movements of the twentieth century; though they remain tied by critics to the earliest and were considered elder statesmen/ observers of the last—the Black Arts movement—Hughes also made some notable contributions there. These writers should be seen as wholly involved in each movement, not simply anachronistic Harlem Renaissance hangers-on riding the wake of newer boats.
Arna Bontemps is a prime example. Bontemps, a prolific writer in a variety of genres, first published in The Crisis in 1924 with the aid of Jessie Fauset, as many important figures of the Harlem Renaissance did, and followed with work in Opportunity, The Messenger, and Fire!!. God Sends Sunday, a historical novel by Bontemps, was published in 1931, and he collaborated with Hughes on Popo and Fifina (1932), but by this time Bontemps realized that he was not going to make his living as a poet in New York. After leaving Harlem in 1933 and a period of moving around to Alabama and California, Bontemps and family settled in Chicago in 1935, where he worked as a principal at Shiloh Academy and worked on his master's degree.
Ensconced in the city with his job and educational goals, he spent eight years in Chicago and, though he was thoroughly unimpressed with the living environment, he published prolifically under his own name, as a ghost writer for W. C. Handy, and in collaboration with important Chicago writers such as Jack Conroy and his old Harlem friend Countee Cullen. But Bontemps was a public intellectual as well, serving on committees, delivering lectures, and doing radio broadcasts that made him an important public figure at the time. Importantly, he cosupervised the Negro in Illinois research project (where he met Conroy) during his Chicago years as well, and he retained contact with Dorothy West and others in the Chicago Renaissance. He left Chicago in 1943 to be the head librarian at Fisk University, but he continued to write and publish until his death in 1973. If he is associated—even by himself—more with the Harlem Renaissance, his work during the time of the Chicago Renaissance in Chicago made him an important, slightly older figure and a model of public service and publication. His political commitment to his colleagues in Chicago and around the country in his public and literary work—indeed the overlap of the two is clear, as one would expect from a movement driven by politics and thorough sociological grounding—mark him as a complete member of the Chicago Renaissance. Whether writing about slave insurrection in Black Thunder (1936) and revolution in Drums at Dusk (1939), collaborating with political ally Jack Conroy on the children's book The Fast Sooner Hound (1942), working on a book on "the Negro in Illinois" with the support of Rosenwald grants, and writing the important Story of the Negro (1948) to narrate the history of black peoples from Egyptian civilization to the present, Bontemps brought inter- and intraracial commitment to his combined political and artistic endeavors, along with a keen sociological eye and a very public, progressive artistic stance. In a larger and more expensive version of this volume, Bontemps would be included among the writers treated in their own essays as well.
Another writer not included here, Waters Turpin, exemplifies the fluid boundaries of various geographically centered "movements" as well. Turpin lived mostly in Pennsylvania and Maryland, never Chicago, but is often grouped with Chicago Renaissance writers by virtue of his discussion of the migration from the South to Chicago of the protagonists in his second novel, O Canaan! But Chicago should be seen as a major artistic hub that had associations with other African American midwestern communities. One particularly important center existed in Detroit, where Robert Hayden worked for the Federal Writers' Project and as a professor, and where the Michigan Chronicle was published (and where, later, Dudley Randall's Broadside Press began publishing in 1965). Cleveland's Playhouse Settlement, later Karamu House, provided cultural centeredness for the African American community there and yet another connection to the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes, who worked with Karamu House beginning in 1936. In O Canaan!, Chicago proves not to be a land where milk and honey flows, but his focus on Chicago as an important symbol of the yearning for social, economic, and spiritual freedom would qualify Turpin to be ranked among the figures of the Black Chicago Renaissance. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance provided a thematic and stylistic bridge from one movement to the other and in fact were testimony to the inadequacies of the terms describing what were neither geographically or chronologically isolated movements. The cultural and literary spirit that resided in Harlem lived elsewhere as well. This was also true for Chicago.
Neither were the writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance chronologically or racially isolated. Another confusion in talking about the Black Chicago Renaissance is the existence of another, earlier, Chicago Renaissance of primarily white writers based in Chicago and most active from the 1890s to the 1920s. That earlier Renaissance movement shared any number of important characteristics with the Black movement that reinforces the essential fallacy of considering the Black Renaissance, or indeed any African American literary movements, in isolation from other social, political, and aesthetic currents in the broader American culture. Hamlin Garland, Henry B. Fuller, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Edith Wyatt, Upton Sinclair, Clara Laughlin, Elia Peattie, Sherwood Anderson, even Hemingway in prose, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Eunice Tietjens, Alice Corbin, Mary Aldis, and Florence Kifer Frank in poetry—these and other writers associated with the earlier Chicago Renaissance projected their own urban vision through their contacts with Chicago.
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